Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Catch and release

Sunday night I was dining with friends, when one of them, Tim W., raised a novel theory. (I do not know Tim's political affiliation. He's a native Bostonian, raised Catholic, who works at Harvard Business School. I might lay odds two to one that he is a Democrat, but I cannot think that he is very far from the mainstream.)

Tim says that the US announces the capture of senior Al Qaeda figures with a regularity too great to be coincidental. Here's his timetable, as far as I can remember. (Thanks to timeanddate.com for their handy calculator.)

September 11, 2001 - Al Qaeda attacks targets in New York and Washington, DC, killing thousands.

March 28, 2002 (198 days later) - Pakistan captures Al Qaeda recruiter Abu Zubaydeh, linked to the millennium plot.

September 14, 2002 (170 days later) - US authorities announce that Ramzi bin al Shibh, allegedly one of the planners of the September 11 attacks, has been arrested after a gun battle in Karachi.

March 1, 2003 (168 days later) - Kahlid Shaikh Mohammed, supposed Al Qaeda operational mastermind is captured in Pakistan.

August 13, 2003 (165 days later) - Al Qaeda affiliate Hambali, mastermind of the Bali nightclub bombing is captured in Thailand.

March 2004 - Rumors abound of Ayman al-Zwahiri's imminent capture by Pakistani forces.

Tim thinks that the terrorists are apprehended long before their captures are revealed, and that the Bush administration is releasing them periodically, one at a time, to maximize their P.R. impact. And of course, if the theory is correct, then the administration will reveal the capture of another top Al Qaeda official around September of this year, right before the election. Who might it be? Tim said he didn't know, but Madeline Albright does.

I think this is nonsense, for two reasons. First, once you come up with an idea like this, it's not too hard to shoehorn the facts into the schema. But schemas bias you against information that doesn't fit. Tim's timetable, for instance, ignores many other Al Qaeda operatives just as important as the ones listed above.

For instance, Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda's military commander was killed in Afghanistan in November 2001. Abu Ali, involved in the USS Cole bombing, was killed in Yemen by a Predator drone in November 2002. Hasan Guhl, an operational planner, was captured in January 2004 in Iraq. And so on.

Second, periodic terrorist captures don't prove a conspiracy of the type Tim implies. For the sake of argument, let's agree that criticism periodically builds up to the point that the president needs to point to a victory in the war on terror. Tim's theory says that at this point Dubya goes down to the super-secret government prison and picks out a member of Al Qaeda's top leadership whose capture will now be staged. An alternate theory is that the president instead pulls out the list of recent captures and tells his press secretary to try to make the last guy captured sound like he's one of Al Qaeda's top leadership. The alternate theory gives you a timetable that looks like the one produced by Tim's theory, but it operates by a much more mundane logic.

It seems to me that there's some support for this alternate theory. For example, after Tom Daschle and other Democrats criticized the president for lack of progress in the war on terror, John Ashcroft announced the capture of Jose Padilla as if this he were Osama's son-in-law. Turns out Padilla was a pretty small fish, but the administration needed him to be a big fish, or at least look like a big fish for the moment.

This may also have been the case with Al Qaeda's Persian Gulf operations chief, Abd Al-Rahim al-Nashiri. He was captured in October 2002, but this was not announced until November 15, the day after Tom Daschle criticized the president for not having "made any real progress" in dismantling Al Qaeda.

And of course, Ayman al-Zawahiri hasn't been captured yet, so we seem to be off schedule. Fnord.


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